The Final Reel
Picture night was Tuesday. In a nissen hut left over from the war, price fourpence. It was run by a middle-aged bloke with some dreary girl supposed to be his daughter, though our gang leader Frank Blunt swore she was really his tart. This bloke drove around all the local villages with projector and reels bunged in the back of an old van. He always wore a penguin suit and bow tie. "Keeping up standards," he said when Frank Blunt once asked him why; we had no idea what he meant.The daughter-tart would try to flog us chocolate bars and crisps. Most of us brought our own, or had run out of pocket-money by Tuesday, and she had no sex-appeal by which to lure us, so her sales never amounted to much. The same stuff probably went round the villages week after week. I once lashed out on a bag of broken crisps; they tasted like fried sawdust.
The programme never varied. First, a newsreel, Movietone or Pathé, usually months old, showing some Royal opening a factory or Britain stunning the world with a new invention or the latest daring Paris fashions. We talked and jeered through them, except when there was a football or cricket clip. Then a stupid Disney cartoon. After that, a short Western with Tom Mix or Bill Boyd sorting out the villains, though they were too tame: nobody was ever killed in them. But at least they beat the ones with the singing cowboys, Gene Autry or Tex Ritter or Roy Rogers and Trigger the effing wonder Horse as Frank Blunt shouted out under the cover of darkness.
Between the Western and the big picture, there came the most popular item: the serial. The bloke was crafty. He knew we wouldn't miss an episode, so we'd be there every week even if we weren't bothered about the main film. The one I'll never forget was called The Scorpion. It was named after the villain, who for unknown reasons always went around in a black cape and mask with his left hand and arm held across his face. He never actually did much, except kidnap some millionaire's daughter for ransom or threaten to blow up half London if his latest demands were not met. He was regularly outwitted by a posh-talking hero with hair-oil and a cravat, helped by some twat of a boy assistant whom we always heckled.
After months and months, we were all there for the last episode. I'd had to steal the fourpence from my mother's purse. By now, it was clear to the thickest that the Scorpion was in fact the smiling know-it-all doctor to whom the hero always turned for help with bullet wounds or antidotes to poisons. When his picture was flashed up with the others in the opening credits, the other kids booed loudly, drowning out Frank Blunt's attempt at a rival cheer.
The Scorpion was finally cornered and unmasked on a roof-top somewhere in London - a lot of the serial seemed to take place on roof-tops there, very exotic to most of the audience who had never been to London, or on many roof-tops either. Right to the end, he had the arm and hand over his face. Just before this, he had captured the boy assistant and was about to order his associates to throw him off the roof, something I wish we'd have seen, if the hero didn't move back. But they got the arm down and the mask off, and the evil doctor got a final round of boos when carted away by some bobbies who'd materialised out of nowhere.
Not much of an ending, really. Frank Blunt swore there was a special adult version which showed the Scorpion being hung in his full outfit, and he would get his dad to buy a print and show it us. Nobody had much faith in this, especially since the Scorpion had never bumped anyone off. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't hope it was true, but of course no such special version ever appeared.
Anyway, Frank Blunt had been scooped. When the lights came on for the usual reel change between serial and big picture, a figure dashed through the hall got up to look like the Scorpion. We gave the bloke a good cheer for this gimmick. Except that it wasn't the bloke at all, since they found him dead in the projection room. The girl was soon arrested and in the dock for murder. From what the newspapers and the village bobby let on, he'd been knocked out and suffocated by the bow-tie stuck down his throat. Most sensationally, they'd found his wedding-tackle cut off and left on the projector.
It turned out that the girl was both his daughter and his tart, and she'd had enough. This was her lawyer's defence. We'd once heard a grown-up reckon she was this, but that sort of idea was too advanced for even Frank Blunt to take in. In those days, though, that didn't cut the ice the way it would now, and the judge was keen on the black wig and the "...Hanged by the neck until you are dead" speech, so the girl was sentenced to an eight am date with Albert Pierpoint the executioner. Along with Frank Blunt's speculations about what she wore on the gallows, there was a bit of sympathy for her in the gang hut, not a lot, since that was the end of our Tuesday pictures.